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tv   Book TV After Words  CSPAN  May 16, 2010 12:00pm-1:00pm EDT

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>> take its bearings from our share of capacity to realize what's best in the human condition, and with attentiveness to how that's very much a function of the economy. in other words, being able to find good work and there being space for that in the economy and sort of take that as a
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touchstone for politics insofar as, you know, our political decisions affect the economy. so, in other words, a case for entrepreneurship and making that viable. and i have to say that one thing that's quite important for that is health care. i would not have been able to go into business if it weren't for the fact that my wife had a job with health care. and i think there's a lot of people out there who that is, you know, the stumbling block. so -- >> host: you can read his book, or health fix your motorcycle. "shop class is soulcraft" by matthew crawford. >> coming up next, booktv presents "after words," an
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hourlong program where we invite guest hosts to interview authors. this week piper kerman discusses her first book, "orange is the new black," a memoir of her time spent in federal prison for a drug-related crime committed in her early 20s. the book details the experience within the legal system of the boston-bred smith graduate who was convicted more than ten years after her offense. she discusses her incarceration with author and former undercover prison guard ted conover. >> host: i'm ted conover, and i'm here today speaking with piper kerman about "orange is the new black." hi, piper. >> guest: hi, ted. >> host: i wondered as i read your book about the ways in which canbury -- dan bury sticks with you, and one of the great revelations of your book is what happens on mother's day.
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could you recall a little bit of that, what it's like and why it means anything there at all? >> guest: i think that mother's day was one of the most intense days that i experienced in danbury, and i am not a mother. of course, i've got a mom who came to visit me that day, and that's, that was one of our most wonderful visits. my mother was an incredible source of strength during the entire legal proceedings and certainly during the time i was incarcerated. and one of the things that i really remember striking me when i was thinking back on my mom and mother's day and, of course, writing the book was that i can't remember ever seeing my mother beaten by anything. and that really came through. i can only imagine that my legal travails were one of the most challenging things she ever experienced but she was just an incredible source of strength
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for me. mother's day started, though, long before i saw my own mom in the visiting room. the moment we woke up that day, and you wake up pretty early in prison as i'm sure you know, everyone began to wish each other a happy mother's day because almost all women in prison are mothers. i think the statistic is around 80 rt. and it was so important because i think on that today of all days mothers miss their children. they miss their children every single day, but that's a tough day because you really confront whatever mistakes you've made as an individual that have put you behind bars on such an important day when you're supposed to be able to celebrate your relationship with your children. many children their families make tremendous efforts to get them up to the prison on mother's day. that's really not possible, though, for so many families. most families, most people in prison are indigent, they're poor people. and even danbury, which is not
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that far from new york city where so many women who are incarcerated there are from, it's an incredibly challenging journey. we're talking subways, trains, taxis and sometimes if you've got a bunch of kids who are coming to visit their mom, that's a really daunting proposition. >> host: yeah, i'm sure. >> guest: it's a huge barrier for family reunification which is important for, again, that huge percentage of women prisoners who when they do come home, and almost all of us are coming home, you know, want to be reunified with their children, and their children want to be reunified with them. >> host: right. i guess that question sort of started us in the middle. i know that before you arrived there you had other things on your mind. i read your piece in the column of the times that was this impending collision of two worlds, the comfortable middle-class college-educated world you came from and the
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tough world that prison is, especially this the popular mind, i think. a dangerous place for people from your background and one of the things a reader is waiting to find out when you enter prison is how bad is this going to be level. so for me reading the book was starting with that expectation and then seeing that's not exactly the way it plays out for you. i don't think you got punched, am i right? >> guest: i didn't get punched, nope. i didn't get slapped either. that's sort of the worst prison weapon i heard about in the course of the time that i was incarcerated which is a lock in a sock which is a daunting weapon. but not one that i saw. that's a huge fear. the fear of violence is a fear that certainly my family and my
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friends had for me, and i certainly was afraid of violence myself though the very limited amount of information i'd been able to gather about women in prison as opposed to, you know, men in prison indicated to me that maybe that might not be what i was facing. but still i think that day that i self-surrendered, you know, in danbury, the main thing was the massive uncertainty of the complete unknown. >> host: right. >> guest: and i think for middle-class people who are not subject to the criminal justice system as often as poor people, it is a huge unknown. and so i had no idea what to expect. >> host: right. >> guest: and the thing that was so shocking once i was finally processed in which was a very scary experience -- >> host: yep. >> guest: -- and once i was actually in the general population, as they say, among the other women and so many
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people. prisons are so crowded that that's one of the things that you immediately have to adjust to is just the crush of humanity. >> host: yep. diswrg of all, you know, shapes, sizes, colors, voices, accents, languages, swirling around. women began to approach me, and i was scared, and they said things like, are you okay? >> host: yeah. >> guest: do you need some toothpaste? >> host: yeah. >> guest: it's going to be all right. this is a really bad day, but it'll get better. >> host: i wiz waiting to see if some of -- was waiting to see if some of them were playing you, trying to win you over early before you knew the score. >> guest: sure, and i think that's a factor, but i always -- when folks ask me about that thinking they might cozy up to you in hopes of getting something from you, my feeling was that was always really obvious and transparent.
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>> host: yeah. >> guest: and so there was no true physical risk, for sure, of sort of brushing that off or, you know, politely or gently sort of giving the cold shoulder to that. >> host: right. >> guest: you had to be careful, i mean, you had to be really subtle. i would say one of the ironic things that i found about prison was elaborate necessity to be respectful and this very, i mean, there's -- most people in prison have not gotten a lot of respect throughout their entire lives and have also potentially not been respectful to other people, but that idea of respect is so central. you know, you, you know, they take everything away from you right down to your underpants, and all you have left sometimes is this concept of respect. so that becomes incredibly important. and whether you're respectful to other people, whether people are respectful to you becomes this incredible currency. >> host: right. i think that's something i learned early on, too, when i
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was a correction officer, the image of steve mcqueen wearing dark glasses in coolhand luke and saying you there, you there. maybe if you're big and strong with a lot of fellow officers around, you can afford to address inmates that way, but my experience was that treating people respectfully or addressing them respectfully and not, you know, not calling people by vulgarities works a lot better. people respond better, and i'm sure that is true between inmates as well. >> guest: it's certainly true with some exceptions. there are some people who are, for a variety of reasons, having a lot of trouble conferring respect to others. >> host: right. >> guest: but when it comes to officers, it's a really interesting point. i think there are certainly officers who simply by their physical imposing force command
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fear, if not respect. >> host: right. >> guest: but the officers are, i think, at least in danbury and in the other facilities that i lived in were most respected were definitely the ones who were most likely to acknowledge our humanity. >> host: right. >> guest: and also to enforce rules. i mean, i think in truth an officer who didn't enforce rules, people might have liked that officer, but they didn't necessarily respect them in the same way as someone who was incredibly consistent and fair and humane. >> host: right. yep. so just to finish up on that theme, being a college-educated person did it bring any drawbacks at all to you in there? >> guest: i really don't think it did. >> host: uh-huh. >> guest: i know that some folks sort of have this idea that perhaps i might have been targeted or a person whose had many privileges or opportunities in life would be targeted, and i can only speak from my own
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experience, but no. i was far from the only middle-class white woman in that facility. >> host: right. >> guest: i was not, i was not alone in that sort of demographic. but, you know, there were a vast majority of people who didn't necessarily come from the same background. but what i found in prison is that what we have in common is much more important than those divisions. i mean, i think that the disparity of opportunity is stark when you're a prisoner, and when you are part of that world and you see who gets put in prison and who doesn't, the different -- what the impact of equality of opportunity or the lack thereof comes to full fruition in the system. >> host: yes, indeed. >> guest: so i'm certainly not saying it's not an important thing, but in the interpersonal relations that i had with folks, you know, behind prison walls what we had in common was much more important. >> host: yeah.
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so i know that jean harris, another famously-incarcerated person from an educated background left her incarceration with a real agenda to help people in there. i read some of the same from martha stewart when she got out. it turns out that that's really what your book is about is an immersion and a witnessing of this incredibly unjust system. obviously, it's about your own story as well, but i was, i guess, maybe it's just the way all of our books have to have a cover. "orange is the new black; my year in a women's prison," made me think it's going to be all about piper kerman and what she's going through. but it's not it. when you were in business, were
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you thinking about -- prison, were you thinking about the book and what it might be about? >> guest: i didn't plan to write a book though my bookie used to turn to me at moments of true chaos and say, bunkie, you go home and write a book. [laughter] so i took her seriously. while i was in prison i was a little more focused, frankly, on just prevailing. >> host: yeah. >> guest: when i came home, there was a high degree of interest from many, many quarters meaning that everyone wanted to sit down and hear about the experience in great detail, in surprising, surprisingly voracious appetite for detail. >> host: yeah. >> guest: and some folks would be willing to sit and listen just for hours and be like, okay, tell the whole story. >> host: yeah. >> guest: but the story is not just my story. the story is about the intersection of my life with
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other people's lives and the recognition of the impact of my own actions on others. i think that an indifference to the suffering of others is at the heart of all crime, it's certainly at the heart of my own crime. and unfortunately, it's really at the heart of the way the system operates as well, so i think it just reinforces, unfortunately, the very factor that lands so many people in prison. >> host: you mention the idea of restorative justice partway through. i've three times proposed articles on the restorative justice movement to various magazines, and somehow they're not as interested in it. for those who don't know this is, of course, the idea that true justice consists of criminals making some kind of amends, or, you know, attending to the results of their crime with the people who suffered from it. >> guest: directly confronting the impact of their actions. >> host: yeah. and we're not set up that way at all, are we? >> guest: not at all.
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not at all. there's no fact jr. -- factor of the sentence that really brings a person to true account. we think of confinement as bringing someone to account, but i think the way the system works an individual who has committed a crime and is being called to account is so preoccupied with their own role as protagonist in that struggle and surviving the system and surviving not just the correctional system, but the criminal justice system as a whole that it's very easy for those individuals to get very far away from whatever harm they may have caused. and that's really a system problem far more than a simple issue of personal responsibility. >> host: right. though there's quite a fascinating moment in "orange is the new black." you reflect frequently on how many people around you are
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incarcerated for long periods of time for nonviolent drug crimes. and, in fact, that whole phrase, nonviolent drug crime, suggests overharsh punishment, i think. and yet there's a moment where you see some of the conditions of the people around you, and you think about your own crime. and i wonder if you could talk about that. >> guest: absolutely. i mean, there were a lot of instances. there were so many people i met in prison who were in prison for drug offenses, but also so many people who had been addicted to drugs, often their offense was connected, directly connected to their addiction. also so many women whose health had been devastated by their use of drugs either in the form of, you know, sort of the ravages of addiction, but also in terms of hepatitis c or hiv. and in the book specifically i talk about my friendship with a woman who i worked with in the
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construction shop. she was not serving time for a drug crime actually, but she was a drug addict, and she was completely clean in prison but she couldn't wait, and she was very straightforward about her anticipation of hitting the streets and getting back to using drugs. she was a very bright woman, you know, and she was completely straightforward, and i would argue with her about that. i would say you're clean now, you know the deal, she'd say, you just don't understand, piper. and she was a cristallizing moment for me in terms of her intent on oblivion and my role in that. and that's a devastating thing because i cared about this woman a lot, and i feared for her future. >> host: what was your role in her oblivion? >> guest: you know, i contributed to the drug trade, and i carried a bag, i mean, i became involved with a woman romantically who was a narcotics trafficker bringing it around the globe, and she asked me at
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one point to carry a bag of money from chicago to brussels, and aagreed to do it, a big bag of drug money to go where, i don't know. but i don't think i was unclear on the origins of that cash. so that's very different than a hand-to-hand drug sale, but you can hardly claim that i'm not complicit in someone else's addiction, you know? i think, you know, you have to willing to carry that also to many other harmful products, but i think that logic applies. >> host: okay. so you were, you would not argue for the legalization of all drugs, that's not one of the reforms you come away advocating. having seen how long some sentences are for some people involved at rather a low level. as you observed, many of your fellow inmates were not sort of capable enough to be very high in an organization. >> guest: no.
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also by, i mean, not that women aren't capable of being high in the organizations, but the reality of women's ability to sort of rise to the head of underground economies is debatable. i don't know. as far as drug legalization this is what i think, i think that marijuana should be legalized, and i think that if we took that step, we would learn a lot about the process and a lot about what works and what doesn't work. >> host: yeah, yeah. >> guest: and i think that would be important to know before we thought about next steps. >> host: i agree with you completely. let's talk about your book for a second. it has two big spans of time before you actually get incarcerated. the first is the span between your involvement in the drug trade which was right after college. >> guest: yep. >> host: you were several years past it living downtown in new york with your boyfriend, now husband.
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>> host: yep. >> guest: yep. >> host: and i imagine you had not thought or worried about it in a long time when something happened. >> guest: i worried about it less as every year passed. >> host: yeah. >> guest: it receded -- it didn't disappear from my mind or memory, but it receded and became sort of more and more this abstract, crazy, reckless, dangerous but in my past thing. but, you know, karma, you know what they say about karma. [laughter] it comes back to haunt you. and so, you know, that knock on the door came, you know, on a very warm spring day down in the west village, and i definitely felt right from the moment that i was informed that i'd been indicted that the consequences would definitely not be light.
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>> host: yeah. >> guest: though when i found myself standing in p rison next to women who were serving seven and ten years and more and i had to scratch my head and say it's hard for me to believe that their offense was that much worse than mine, i literally on the first day i arrived in prison i was like, i have nothing to complain about. i felt that way really powerfully. >> host: yeah, that's so interesting. if that knock on the door had not come, fast forward how many years now, 15? maybe not that many, is it? do you suppose you would have revealed this to your mate? would this have come out? >> guest: to my mate? yes. >> host: yeah, uh-huh. >> guest: yes. this was definitely a misadventure i had put in the lock box. it's not something to brag about. >> host: no. but it's nice that it can be something that didn't weigh on
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you. in fact, after you then went through the meat grinder of prosecution, the next surprise for me in the book was you were not immediately incarcerated. >> guest: yes. >> host: and i thought that waiting to be incarcerated sounded a lot worse than waiting for the knock on the door. was that -- >> guest: oh, yes. >> host: would that be right? >> guest: definitely right. >> host: so tell why you were not incarcerated right away. >> guest: i was informed of my indictment, i was arraigned, and i quickly pled guilty all in the space of just a few months in 1998. and almost immediately after i entered my guilty plea, i had a plea agreement. my lawyer called me from chicago and said, you're not going to believe this. i've got something kind of crazy to tell you. there were 13 other people in my indictment if my memory serves me right. i'm at the bottom of that list,
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and at the top of the list is a drug kingpin who's a west african, you know, he's west african and lives in west africa, and he had been taken into custody in the u.k. on this warrant. >> host: you're indicted as co-conspirators. >> guest: exactly. and this is not a person i've ever met. he'd been taken into custody which was shocking in and of itself, and he was being held, and that triggered this lengthy delay as they tried to extradite him which they failed to do. he was released. and so that was an almost six-year delay. >> host: and that kept you out of prison why? >> guest: i think, i mean, i can't answer that with complete clarity, but i think in general the prosecutor wanted potential witnesses to appear in street clothes rather than in orange jump suits. ironically, when i did, when i was, n., called to appear in the
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trial, i was wearing an orange jumpsuit. >> host: yeah. that's so interesting. okay. >> guest: so finally when the u.s. government failed to extradite that individual and he was released, they began to proceed with sentencing of me and other co-defendants. >> host: right. right, right. okay. so you had not written a book before. >> guest: no. >> host: were you an english major? >> guest: no, i was a theater major. >> host: a theater major. so you have a great store of detail from your experience at danbury, wonderful descriptions of the people you're with and a facility for remembering things people said which i envied. one of my favorites was when you're being processed as a new inmate. you're in some sort of orientation, and there's a sort of o fish shus person talking
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down at all of you inmates. one of -- a woman seated next to you says jesus f. christ, who peed in her cheerios? did you not write that down? >> guest: no, i didn't write that down at the time, but those are vivid memories. i mean, they're all vistled memories. but i can see that room in my mind just as we're talking about it. television room with sort of naive paintings on the wall, literally on the wall, and i remember the person who said that very vividly. she was a violater, and this was -- >> host: a parole violater. >> guest: yes. so she had been in federal prison before, she had violated her parole, she was a drug addict, and she was back in jail. this was only a few days that i'd been in prison, and i was so stunned by the idea that anyone would ever return to prison. >> host: yeah, right.
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>> guest: i remember focusing on her really closely. also she was nice, you know? she was a nice person. >> host: right. >> guest: and, you know, that room, we were sitting in that room, and we were all pretty down, we were all fresh into, you know, some of the folks in that room had been actually in confinement for some time. but we were all new to this facility, and in general the mood was fairly low. but she was in a pretty good mood, so that's one of the reasons she sort of sticks out in my mind and her sort of salty tone. >> host: right. >> guest: you know, to your question, though, i am a first-time writer. i took, i'm not a daily diarist, i did keep some journals while i was there. i was really lucky most of my friends kept the letters i wrote to them. those were an invaluable source of insight. >> host: right. because you can't be assured of leaving prison with your journal even if you keep one, right?
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>> guest: definitely not. >> host: and, in fact, you didn't leave with your personal property. >> guest: i didn't leave with anything but one little piece of paper which was paperwork, but when i did leave the prison, i was going -- i knew i was going on the federal transport, you know, con air. >> host: right. >> guest: i was close to the end of my sentence, so i knew there was a good chance i would never return to danbury, i should probably knock wood right now. [laughter] so i gave away all my things. when i say my things, my sweat pant, my sneakers, the things i'd bought from the commissary, the good uniforms i'd accrued -- >> host: crow shayed slippers? >> guest: no, i kept those. and i got packed out, and when you get packed out, that means that you get packed out with the assistance of an officer. and basically all the personal belongings it was this massive mound of paper and those
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slippers and a couple of books and my journal were put into a box and put into storage in danbury with they sat -- where they sat until i came home, and then they were shipped to me when i came home, that box of treasures, frankly. >> host: yeah. >> guest: so, and then back to the letters, you know, a lot of my friends kept my letters to them and photocopied them and sent them to me when i began to write the book. but things like dialogue in the book, those are drawn from memory, you know? i can't pretend otherwise. >> host: sure. >> guest: those memories are vivid, but, you know, drawn from memory, absolutely. not drawn from a tape recorder. >> host: right. >> guest: other than the one in my head. [laughter] >> host: well, also i just know that when a person is in an environment that is foreign and upsetting in many ways, memories tend to be vivid. >> guest: very sharp. >> host: yeah. stuff you just probably will never forget. >> guest: i'm sure that there are many rooms that you will
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never, ever forget from inside sing sing. >> host: i was thinking about it this afternoon. >> guest: yeah? which rooms are most vivid for you? >> host: oh, the horrible, gigantic rooms of the cell block. you know, the architecture you don't run into in any other place than prison with the sounds and the smells of a place like that. >> guest: absolutely. the sounds alone, that's one of my most vivid memories, sound. interestingly, you know, the sounds in danbury are very different than the sounds in oklahoma city. oklahoma city, ironically, a very quiet place. >> host: they're all different. they're all different. >> guest: and then chicago, the federal jail there that i spent some hellish weeks in, ca cough now. just a noise that you think will make you lose your mind. >> host: right. so the soundscape is unlike anything else, but i was also struck when you got a new cube neighbor, a transsexual who was -- >> guest: vanessa. >> host: vanessa was not given all of her --
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>> guest: medication. >> host: -- medication to stay as female as she had been, and on a hot day you commented on vanessa had introduced a different sort of smell -- >> guest: scent, yes. the cent -- scent of a man. she'd be really angry if she was here with us to hear that, but it's true. the other that is mating thing was the fact they would not provide her medications to her changed her voice back a bit, so she was able to sort of drop her voice and she loved to actually scare people that way. [laughter] because you'd think she was an officer. >> host: so she could have a high voice but also a bellowing voice. >> guest: exactly. she was a wonderful person though. >> host: yeah. >> guest: you know, i could -- speaking of vivid memories, you know, she provides many. >> host: yeah. several male to female transsexuals at sing sing, i was always grateful for the feminine presence. they're not -- they're something
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in between, and yet it's a relief to have somebody there to interrupt the monotony of single-sex living. >> guest: yeah, absolutely. definitely. >> host: so i think we need to take a break right now. >> guest: okay. >> host: all right? >> guest: great. >> "after words" and other c-span programs are available for download as podcasts. more with piper kerman and ted conover in a moment. >> "after words" with piper kerman and ted conover
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continues. >> host: piper, one difference between where i worked in a state maximum security prison for men and the federal women's prison camp where you did time was where you were it appeared there were maxi pads everywhere. they were, they were useful this more ways than one. >> guest: they are so useful. >> host: can you describe some of that? >> guest: maxi pads are one of the few things that the prison provides. there are many ideas about prison giveaways or freebies for prisoners. the only thing the prison provided to us other than uniforms, sheets, towels, every week, every month there was the issuing of laundry soap and in the bathrooms they provided the very fundamental toil let ris, maxi pads, tampons, toilet
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paper. but anything else shampoo, soap for your body, toothpaste, toothbrushes, you're on our own. but maxi pads and also tampons were multi-purposed. they were particularly useful as cleaning agents. >> host: rags? >> guest: rags, in essence. so, you know, prison living is in a lot of senses modeled on, perhaps, military living? certainly it's dorm-style living, barracks-style living. and one of the mandates is keeping your personal area clean which is completely important. [laughter] and cleaning was an incredibly important ritual. we had inspections. failure or success in the inspections contributed to how early you got to eat or how late you got to eat and, therefore, whether you got the best food or not. sunday nights particularly were highly ritualized cleaning
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opportunities, and generally you were expected to clean with your immediate, with your bunkmate or if you lived in a room with multiple prisoners, your roommates. and so those maxi pads would scrub the ceiling over my bunk, they would scrub the floors, we would use them as skids under lockers so that those things were more easy to move so you could clean, you know, people used them in many interesting ways. primarily as cleaning agents. >> host: i was amazed and delighted by that. at sing sing there was a never ending supply of toothbrushes and toothpaste, but i never once saw a useful thing like that. >> guest: like a maxi pad? >> host: yes, like a maxi pad. when you were describing just that, the hospital corners, you know, your own cubemates said,
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no, no, don't you make the bed, we'll show you how because there are penalties for doing it wrong. not only that, when you're getting ready to climb into bed, they say, no. >> guest: no, no, no, don't get in the bed. >> host: so get this, at the training academy in albany where i spent seven weeks, it's exactly the same. you do not climb under your top sheet because you'll have to remake that bed. it's exactly the same. >> guest: surreal. >> host: it is surreal. the officer culture and the inmate cultures, they're parallel, and they overlap this these ways that are quite fascinating. and yet more typcly in what you describe in your book is this sort of darkly-drawn line between inmates and officers, and there's an officer i think in a truck when you're on a work detail, you're outside the prison who wants to be chatty with you, wants to learn a little bit about you, what
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you're in for, how a nice girl like you ended up in a place like this, and you're not interested in having that conversation. >> guest: uh-huh. >> host: and i could have been that guard because i was always interested in learning about the inmates. in fact, it was kind of a problem, i think, connected to my education. i wanted -- and my mission, which was to write about this eventually, i wanted to know everything about them. and a few inmates would talk to me, more would not. so what's at stake for an inmate in sharing that information? why wouldn't you try to bridge that gap? >> guest: there's a couple things that are at stake for an inmate in terms of how close they might become to a guard. >> host: yeah. >> guest: i think what's true for any inmate is that if you're perceived as being cozy with staff, then there's pretty good risk you might be a snitch. so that's taken pretty seriously. >> host: yeah. >> guest: on the other hand,
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it's completely accepted that there are snitches and that there will always be snitches. so that's one risk. >> host: so you want to keep your reputation clean. >> guest: you want to keep your reputation as not fraternizing with staff. absolutely. and that is a choice, you know, i think some inmates are, like, to hell with it. i'm going to frat we -- fraterne with staff if i want to, and i don't care if you think i'm a snitch. but for myself and there was one year where i said thank god this is only a year, i'm sort of going to be a worker among workers. that's the place of safety for me, that's the place of comfort for me. from an intellectual perspective, you know, cozying up to your jailer is a very stomach-turning proposition. >> host: yeah. >> guest: but on another level, on an emotional level the risk
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of closeness with someone who has a completely different status than you, you know, guards from my point of view have complete power over inmates. >> host: well, and particularly when it's a male guard and a female inmate. >> guest: yes. >> host: that's a different situation than what i was describing. >> guest: i would imagine i would feel -- no female guard ever actually attempted to become friendly with me. i imagine even in that case i would be very, i would have been uncomfortable with that because of that power dynamic. >> host: right. >> guest: but then, of course, when you lay in the sexual dynamic, that adds an entirely new level of risk as well for the inmate, for the prisoner. >> host: yeah. >> guest: and that's all really scary stuff. and ultimately, you know, the benefit of that intimacy, just the intimacy of two people treating each other as human beings and talking about
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themselves in a way that's not guarded was frightening. >> host: right. you describe the annual gynecological exam to which you were entitled which many of your fellow inmates said, forget it, it's this man, i don't want to go through that, i'm not going in there. you said, it's important. i'm going to do it. >> guest: u uh-huh. >> host: it was not a positive experience, and you wondered why they couldn't have supplied a female gynecologist to look at all these women, a very reasonable question. well, when i got to sing sing and when i went through the corrections academy i wondered both why there are women working as officers in a male institution and why there are males working as officers in a female institution. >> guest: uh-huh. >> host: and i believe it has to do with equal employment opportunity. but did you ever wish all the staff was female? would that have made it better in any way?
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>> guest: it would have made it a completely different place. it would have made it a dramatically different experience. i don't know whether it would make it better or worse. it would certainly make it less dangerous from the perspective of sexual abuse which is a huge problem in prisons, male and female prisons nationwide, and every year there are shocking stories that come out, shocking, shocking and yet consistent stories. crazy things have happened in terms of women's facilities at the federal institution in tallahassee, there was an incident where a guard who had been caught sexually abusing other prisoners started shooting other guards because he knew he was going down. >> host: right. >> guest: recently in i think it's tennessee they moved 400 prisoners because they found the sexual abuse was so rampant that they decided to simply transport them out of there. so it's not something, you know, safety, the safety of prisoners,
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ironically, is a really serious thing. i, i think there would be benefits certainly to parity in terms of male and female officers. i think that would make for -- >> host: equal numbers, you mean. >> guest: -- for a very, very different environment. and i think that would be true in both men's and women's facilities. the guards in dan jr. bury and every unit i was in were overwhelmingly male. and i think one of the things that bothered me, certainly, was that, again, that dynamic of people who have near complete power over one cohort of people who are near complete power over another cohort of people arranged along gender lines had this incredible effect on, you know, anyone mentally, but also a lot of women who are in prison have not, have not necessarily are had all of the agency that a
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middle-crass woman might have in -- middle-class woman might have in terms of politics and gender equality. so i think there's a terrible reinforcement of that gender dynamic that takes place in women's prisons. >> host: yeah. >> guest: because of that lopsided population of the male guard cohort. >> host: sure. right, right. when you were preparing to write your book, were there models of narrative that you used? were there favorite books you modeled yours on? other books about women in prison or other books of any kind that were useful to you? >> guest: i loved your book. >> host: oh, well, you're nice to say that. [laughter] >> guest: i loved your book. i read your book with great interest and at times total anger. [laughter] but it's a great example of a personal narrative. it's different, obviously, because you've been into it with journalistic intent. >> host: completely different.
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>> guest: so there are so many personal narratives that i've loved. you know, what i found as i started out to write was that almost all of the personal narrative either by women who are in prison or have been in prison is in short form. you know, there's very little, you know, social security in anthology form, and there have been many anthologies of women's writing from prison that have been published, a couple of great ones published by wally lamb. so those were fascinating. those document women who come from, you know, very different parts of the spectrum of experience from mine. so they're great. i'm not an experienced writer, i sort of sat down to just do it. i've read a lot of wonderful first-person narratives. i'm trying of think of -- to think of the ones that might
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have been most inspiring, but i can't say i brought a huge amount of art to it or a whole, a great deal of modeling. as much as just trying to document. it was interesting, i went through the process of trying to catalog the experience first, and i think my first draft was probably very excruciating to read. i wrote it in a month-by-month rubric, like literally every month i spent in prison was its own chapter. >> host: a diary fashion. >> guest: yes. i think that was detailed and accurate but really hard to read. [laughter] i think at one point my editor made a point to me, i think you're trying to capture the incredible tedium here. [laughter] >> host: any truly realistic prison book would be really boring, right? because there's so much that happens that is dull, dull, dull. >> guest: yeah. >> host: and yet we can't fill the pages. >> guest: when i think of other personal narratives, they're not necessarily about prison. i love yours because it's
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journalistic but personal. books like "oh, the glory of it all," you know, have a fascinating effort to capture really painful experiences with humor. >> host: right. >> guest: and that was incredibly important to me. >> host: right. >> guest: when i set out. because i felt, what i felt when i set out with was i wanted to write a book that would be accessible to lots of people. i didn't see any reason to write it only for folks who already knew about the prison system because, frankly, nothing i revealed would be new to them. >> host: uh-huh. >> guest: so it was important to write a book that was really accessible and humor is part of that, though the other thing about humor in the book -- and there is humor in the book -- is that it's a fundamental part of being a prisoner is drawing on humor in order, it's a big survival tool. >> host: yes, it is. >> guest: so that's, in my mind, a very accurate representation of the experience. >> host: and dark humor.
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there can be wonderful, fantastic humor in prison where you need it the most, i think. >> guest: it is. absolutely. >> host: yeah. our experiences were different because i could come home every night, and yet i, too, was sort of counting the days until i could say i've done enough time here. >> guest: uh-huh. >> host: it's time to go. and yet on the last day when i left for the very last time, i was seized with this strange regret like i was leaving, thank god i was leaving this place, but i wasn't just leaving a place, i was leaving a number of people who knew and depended on me for certain things. and i can't guess at what it must be like from the other side to leave prison, but i wondered if you could just tell us, you didn't leave danbury for freedom, you left for another prison while you were processed out and testifying. what did you miss when you left
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there? were there any regrets about what you were leaving? >> guest: oh. i missed people desperately. especially in the dramatically different discomforts of oklahoma city and of chicago. you know, so i missed some of the comforts of rituals that i had created for myself in dan jr. bury or had been created for me. in oklahoma state i missed the ability to go to work, you know, the tedium of a facility where you truly cannot do anything is shocking. >> host: yeah. >> guest: but those bonds that you form which, you know, objectively make sense. you're going through a dramatic and intense experience with other people, you're going to rely on each other to survive, you're going to form intense bonds. i missed them so much, and i miss many of them still, but in those months when i was still incarcerated but no longer in danbury, it was shocking to me
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when i goat to oklahoma city -- got to oklahoma city that i got homesick for danbury but not the outside world. i was sort of disgusted with myself, but that was the truth. and when i got to chicago, it was like, i'm homesick for oklahoma city. [laughter] but that's my, you know, when i was about to leave to go on that segment of the journey, my boss in the construction shop, heavy smoker and a quiet man, made a reference to diesel therapy. >> host: yeah. >> guest: and i had no idea, i'm like, what are you talking about? and that's what i understood in the course of that final leg of my journey was what he meant by diesel therapy, the idea that tough circumstances make you appreciate what you have had or what you lost. >> host: uh-huh. so this is going to seem good to you, where you're going now. >> guest: i think so, yes. >> host: yeah. there's a full circle feeling
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that comes when you've left danbury. the reader knows that you were likely fingered by the woman you call nora who you'd been involved with and who you got involved in carrying money as a consequence with, excuse me. and yet you don't, you haven't been in touch with her. i think you may have heard she's incarcerated, but you don't know details. but once you are summoned to testify at a trial regarding another member of your conspiracy, you realize there's a pretty good chance you're going to see her again, and then sure enough and let me -- i don't want to tell the story, but let me just say one of my favorite scenes in the book is when i guess you're in oklahoma city with jay, is it? >> guest: uh-huh, uh-huh. >> host: and you've spotted nora. tell what jay says to you.
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jay thinks she knows what you want to do. >> guest: right. so i had fantasized many times in my mind a moment when our paths might cross, you know, this woman who in a lot of senses i still blamed for involving me in this. and generally i said those, you know, not in prison but in a bar where i'd be able to grab a pool handle. [laughter] i'm not a violent person. but in that context of prison, the idea of someone who has ratted you out is a really powerful idea. and i felt at that moment like i had this opportunity to exact revenge. >> host: which how might you have done that if you had no impulse control? >> guest: well, if you had no impulse control, you'd go to town on her. i, fortunately, didn't have a lock. >> host: you're sitting in a
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cafeteria. >> guest: this is a very spartan unit in oklahoma city. it reminded me of a clean, quiet train station. you know, a very institutional and maximum security facility, so really there was anything bolted to the walls, you know, a tiny little rolling cart of, you know, the library. and i caught sight of her across the room, and i knew that she hadn't seen me yet, so i would have had the element of surprise if i had no impulse control and was, in fact, you know, not in any way prone to violence. the sort of conceit that you would have expected in that setting was that i'd have attacked her. >> host: and jay said, if there's something you have to do, i understand, but try not to, didn't she? >> guest: absolutely. and jay was a friend of mine, a woman i'd befriended at work who was serving a ten-year sentence, and she was pretty early in the sentence. >> host: yeah. >> guest: a very warm and solid
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person who had my back in the past. >> host: right. >> guest: and she sort of let me know, you know, i'm not going to back you up if you do something crazy. >> host: yeah. >> guest: i understand if you feel like you have to do something crazy, but it's the wrong thing to do. >> host: yeah. >> guest: she said, you're about to go home, you've got a guy who comes to see you every week which, you know, was not something a lot of people had. she said, you know, sort of, you know, suck it up a little bit. >> host: yeah. and you did. >> guest: and i did, yes. and, you know, again, i'm not a person who has no impulse control. i'm not a person who's ever used violence to get what i want. i tried to put a lot of distance between myself and that person initially, and i really stewed. i really sat and stewed. >> host: yep. >> guest: but by the time we arrived in chicago to the federal jail there, i was ready to sort of confront her, not
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physically but personally, conversationally, and it was an interesting moment there in chicago when i turned a very important emotional corner or personal corner and sort of realized that my fantasies about revenge were really fruitless and blame that i associated with her in terms of my current situation was not well placed, that the blame resided with me. and that the ability to forgive her made me a bigger person and a better person. >> host: yeah. >> guest: and that was an incredible, i mean, i do remember that moment of realization. that is one of the thunder bolt moments in one's life, and i'm grateful. i'm very grateful that that happened. >> host: in three or four pages the value of forbearance is abundantly illustrated.
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>> guest: yeah. >> host: and she then claims that she was not the one who first fingered you. do you have any resolution of that now? >> guest: i have no resolution, and the thing that i'm also very grateful is i really don't very much care. i mean, the realization that it really doesn't matter at all. >> host: yeah. so let's talk about that idea, though, that in forgiving you grow. i think in our culture there's an idea that a diversity of experiences makes, grows character, that as you yourself write early on what doesn't kill you makes you strong. is prison one of those things? >> guest: oh. i mean, it's easy for me who served only a year in prison to say that i'm grateful for some of the things that i learned there. the danger and the tragedy, i think, of prison as a social tool -- >> host: yeah. >> guest: -- and of long sentences especially is that a
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lot of the insights that i feel i gained, i gained through hard personal work which is the choice of the person. from a systemic point of view -- >> host: right. >> guest: -- i think that the folks expect, oh, well, send someone to prison, and they'll learn a lesson. i think the only thing that you're guaranteed that the prison system is guaranteed to teach you is how to be a prisoner. it is not a skill set that serves you well on the outside world. >> host: right. >> guest: at all. and you do, you learn how to be a prisoner. it's very important to learn to be a prisoner if you want to survive in prison. >> host: yep. >> guest: and when we send someone to prison for long periods of time, the life of the institution, i'm sure that this is something you might agree with based on reading your own book, the life of the institution completely overtakes your mind and your world. >> host: yeah. >> guest: and you did get to go home every day, but you write about that in your own book, the
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degree to which the life of that institution and your place in it dominates. so when you live inside a prison as a prisoner for ten years, the idea that you will walk on the street and be able to reintegrate into society is incredibly naive. >> host: yeah. well, the character in "orange is the new black" who illustrated that for me most vividly was your bunkmate, pop, an older woman. her whole name was pop slip? was that it? >> guest: uh-huh. >> host: she's the cook in the kitchen at danbury, she's been in more than ten years. >> guest: yep. she served over ten years. she was my buddy. she was not my bunkie, but she was my friend. she was one of my dearest friends. >> host: and she has a strong social network in that facility, and she's released right around the time you are, and more than
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anyone else it reminded me of that image, i think it's from a john irving novel of there's a gas station he writes about that had a pet tiger in a big cage. it was an old esso station or something, and one day they left the door open by mistake. the tiger wasn't going anywhere. he, the tiger was afraid to leave the cage. and the tiger probably could not survive outside the cage. and i thought about that with pop, you know? she's not young, she's a creature of habit, she works really hard but even on days when she has vacation, she goes to work because that's what she knows. and a person like that suddenly thrust into the big world which she left before internet, before cell phones, before keyless entry to cars, i'm sure. i mean, what's, what are we doing to people like that?
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>> guest: yeah, absolutely. the good news about pop, about a person like pop is that she did have ties to the outside world. >> host: yeah. >> guest: she had strong ties to the outside world in terms of her family. >> host: yeah. >> guest: so there was a clear pathway home for her. and a ferocious work ethic that -- >> host: her husband was in prison though. >> guest: her husband was in prison. >> host: yeah. >> guest: but, you know, pop is a true survivor. yes, definitely. and fully there. >> host: yeah. >> guest: that's the other thing that, i'm sure, is really true in all prisons is that mental acuity or mental illness makes a massive difference in how folks serve their sentences and how successful they are at returning home. pop didn't have any of those challenges. there's another person that i talk about, mrs. jones, in the book who served a longer sentence, i believe, than pop. and mrs. jones is a person who


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